mel writes things

Dec 11, 2019

19 min read

Wanna Smash? A Love Letter to the Fighting Game that Shaped Me

Super Smash Brothers Ultimate. Copyright Nintendo.

If you’ve known me in the past year, you know I can’t stop talking about Super Smash Brothers. Also known as Smash Bros or just Smash, it’s one of the best-selling fighting game titles of all time. It’s also near and dear to my heart for many sentimental reasons. There are tons of articles online explaining how deep, complex, and just plain fun Smash is, so I’ll leave it to people who know the game better than I do to elaborate on that. I want to share the story of why I have so much affection for it, and the things that the game has taught me.

Video games have been a constant fixture in my life. When things get overwhelming I tend to retreat into my introverted shell and withdraw from people. In those times, I turn to the comfort of video games. Like catching up with an old friend who can reassure you that nothing’s changed, playing a video game is a nostalgic trip that brings me back to a time when life was simpler. The social aspect of video games has also helped me reach out and connect to others when I’m deep in the throes of my introversion. As I’m writing this, high off my excitement and hope from attending the first Jakarta Smash tournament, I realize that all along, video games have anchored me in times of change and confusion, reminding me that things were going to be just fine, and bridging me to people whom I otherwise would have never met.

ITC Mangga Dua, Cornerstone of Indonesian Gaming Culture

If my life was the plot of a role playing game, ITC Mangga Dua would be the first location my character got their weapon upgrade. It’s a shopping center in North Jakarta, more accurately described as a multi-storey labyrinth of various small shops selling clothes, shoes, watches, toys, glasses, cup corn, cooking equipment, DVDs, cables, walkie talkies, phone casings, real phones, fake phones, and more. Everything you find online you can also probably find in Mangga Dua if you look hard enough. Growing up, I always looked forward to monthly family excursions there. I remember the dizzying thrill of wading through a sea of pirated DVDs stacked against each other in cardboard boxes like fish out to dry, each packaged in clear plastic with tiny printouts of pixelated movie poster cover art.

But my favorite part of each trip was going to the video game store.

Mal Mangga Dua Jakarta. Photo by christian r from Jakarta [CC BY-SA 2.0]

Visiting the video game section of Mangga Dua is an experience that transports you back in time. As you walk through the crowded alleys, the clothing stores and electronics, storeowners loudly advertising their wares, the scenery starts to shift. You know you’re in the right place when you see the dusty display cases full of video game boxes, faded store signage and video game posters, landmarks that will dredge up fond memories of any kid who grew up playing video games in the 90s.

Being a gamer in Indonesia 20 years ago is very different from being a gamer now. We used to rely on dial-up connection to access the internet. Loading a single YouTube video took a long time and ate up a large portion of internet quota. Back in the days you had a limit to how much internet bandwidth you could use on your computer. Any calls to and from your home phone would cut off your connection, so downloading files larger than 3 MB was a risky pastime. There was no such thing as mobile data. Information about new game titles came from video game magazines (Indonesians: do the titles HotGame, Zigma and Gamestation bring back fond memories of Gameshark codes?)

This made every trip to the Mangga Dua video game store an exciting new adventure. The only indicator that a game would be fun was how cool the cover art was, similar to the experience of cratedigging for vinyl records. Finding a new game, taking it home, and watching the opening credits load while I trembled in anticipation was one of the highlights of being a kid. During lunch at school, I’d share tips with friends on how to clear that one stage we were all having trouble with. We’d sneakily print out 30-page fanmade strategy guides from GameFAQs during computer class and that was our gaming bible. When my save data got deleted because the memory card was corrupted, it was like my life had ended. My entire childhood, and the way I’ve learned to relate to people, is inseparable from the iconic video games that colored my adolescence, and I have video game developers, my family, who didn’t see any problem with a girl playing video games, and the retailers in Mangga Dua to thank for that. I’m sure this rings true for a lot of people who grew up in Jakarta as well.

PS Enterprise. Photo by Emirald Julio. Original article on PingPoint.

Since you can now buy games off the internet and have them delivered to you digitally or straight to your door, my last visit to Mangga Dua was close to 10 years ago. Though online shopping put to death a lot of traditional video game stores, I found one that remained standing and retained the glory it had throughout these years: PS Enterprise. In a poetic turn of events, the video game store that was sponsoring the Smash tournament I attended this past weekend was the same store my brothers and I frequented throughout our childhood that supplied us with all our gaming gear. The owner even recognized my dad and brother and said hi to us when we walked by. I couldn’t believe it. I remembered my mom off-handedly mentioning right before we left the house that afternoon, “Wouldn’t it be funny if the video game gathering you’re going to was at that store we used to buy your games from?” It all came full circle.

In that moment, I was the me of 1999, excited out of her mind to discover the latest and greatest video games waiting to be played. I was also the me of 2019, excited to finally attend an event organized by the Jakarta Smash community, which had been non-existent until then.

Communal Gaming in Indonesia

Communal gaming is part of an Indonesian child’s upbringing. Ask any 20-something today and I guarantee they’d remember a time when they played Tekken with friends and neighbors after Kumon class. What’s lesser known is that Indonesia has an underreported history of competitive gaming, being one of the underlooked gaming hubs of the world. Preliminary rounds for the World Cyber Game championships were hosted publicly in Mall Taman Anggrek, drawing thousands of players and fans. Today, this translates to Indonesia having the single biggest population of Mobile Legends players in the world. This makes perfect sense when you remember there are 260 million Indonesians and a growing young population with access to the internet and mobile phones.

Communal gaming has always been part of our culture, and its recognition with a wider, more mainstream audience has ebbed and flowed with the times. eSports is all the rage right now and the audience for it is huge. Cue the telco and tech companies scrambling to invest and capitalize on this giant horde of consumers by sponsoring gaming tournaments. This influx of money into eSports is good for the ecosystem. Hopefully, this means we are being upgraded from underlooked to up-and-coming. This phenomenon didn’t happen out of the blue. It’s built on top of the foundation of millions of 90s kids growing up with video games.

Maybe you grew up with games and continued to play- yesterday’s neighborhood Tekken kids are now in suits and ties, stealing time in between meetings and in traffic to boot up a quick game or two on their phones. Or maybe you’re new- the ease of downloading mobile games means even people who don’t consider themselves gamers can try their hand at it. Maybe someone you care about is super into games and you find yourself wanting to play to understand why. Everyone’s brother or sister or kid is streaming themselves playing games. Matchmaking apps for gamers make it easier to find other players online. But nothing beats the experience of meeting up in person, gathering in front of TVs and having a great time playing together. In a time where connection often takes place through screens, offline tournaments and competitions exist to bring people together in their shared appreciation of the game.

Finding and Rediscovering Super Smash Brothers

Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 64. Copyright Nintendo

One of the first games I played was the original Super Smash Brothers on the Nintendo 64. Released in 1999, it was the glue that bonded me and my cousins together. Every Sunday, our families would gather at my grandma’s house in Green Garden. We’d camp in our uncle’s room because it had the biggest TV, and play Smash for hours. Our WhatsApp group chat today is named “Green Garden Gaming” in commemoration of those days. Years later, the city I went to college in turned out to be one of the most active Smash hubs in the US. Yet I never played even though so many people around me were avid Smashers. There was even a weekly meetup right in the campus grounds. I went once or twice, just to see what the hype was all about. Still I never ventured forth. I think I was too intimidated by the depth of the game and how good everyone else was to get into it. I was also playing a lot of League of Legends at that time, maybe too much to the detriment of my studies, but that’s a story for another time.

It wasn’t until last year when a Nintendo Switch was installed in the office game room that I rediscovered Smash, now at its latest iteration 21 years later as Super Smash Brothers Ultimate. At first it was just me and another colleague who played for fun. Then we roped in another colleague into our sessions, then another. Because the game room connected the working areas to the cafeteria, everyone walking by could see us play. Sometimes they joined us for a game. Before we knew it, there was a group of us from different cross-functional teams in the company who were playing almost every day. At first it was all fun and games. Then, because we were all competitive tryhards who loved winning, we actually tried to get better and enabled each other, sometimes with friendly trash talking.

Empty meeting room takeover session

We would occupy the game room to play Smash. Because it also doubled as a karaoke and Netflix room, when others wanted to use it we’d migrate to empty meeting rooms, converting them into temporary game rooms. Playing Smash in the office at the end of the day made me look forward to going to work when things got tough. After particularly stressful meetings, I’d rope one of my colleagues into a quick match while I sought their advice on how to deal with the pressure from work. Looking back now, those Smash sessions were therapeutic.

Smash’s popularity also enabled me to meet and connect with people in different countries, transcending cultural and language barriers. At my peak obsession with the game, I was bringing my controller everywhere I traveled, looking for Smash events in whichever city I was visiting.

Smash meetups I went to in Tokyo and Singapore

In a family trip to Tokyo in May, the first thing I did the night we landed was go to a gaming cafe to play Smash with locals. I lost all my matches, but was happier than ever to meet so many great players. In my limited Japanese, I explained how I came all the way from Indonesia to meet other Smashers and envied how Tokyo had regular Smash meetups in multiple locations. In Singapore, I was welcomed warmly by the local Smash community at a meetup. The tournament organizer urged me to plug into the scene in Jakarta, which didn’t exist back then. On a trip to company headquarters in California for orientation at my new job, I was very happy to find out there was a dedicated and active Smash group in the company, with a permanent gaming area in the office and many excellent players. Like the gaming crew at my previous office, the Smash group hosted coworkers from a diverse set of departments and backgrounds, all united by their love of the game. Some of them would have never met if it weren’t for the club. My California-based coworkers too encouraged me to start a Smash group in Indonesia and I was determined to make it happen.

If this were a movie, this is the part where I come back to Jakarta, energized and eager to start a bustling Smash community and realize my dreams of being able to play with friends whenever I wanted. But the reality was that in the hectic process of adapting to a new stage of life, I stopped playing. Every once in a while, I would watch videos of matches from major tournaments that my feed recommended and yearn to play again. At any given time, I was always thinking about Smash. An unending loop of Smash combo videos played in the background of my mind. But I had no time and energy to actually play.

Then, Batavia Brawl came along. I found out about this Smash tournament in Mangga Dua one night browsing through the Smash Indonesia Discord (a messaging app like Slack, but for gamers) on a whim. The promise of meeting other people who loved the game as much as I did was the catalyst that reignited my desire to play again. Leading up to tournament day, I was canceling all after-work plans to go home and practice. I played online with some of the people that had also registered for the tournament and realized just how rusty I had gotten. Even after losing several matches in a row, I was ecstatic. These people were good. I hadn’t felt this excited about anything in a long time.

Competing at Batavia Brawl

Having never competed in a real fighting game tournament before, I thought the experience would be like all the other times I played with friends. I can say now that I had severely underestimated what it would be like. To onlookers, the tournament participants must have looked like a random mishmash of people sitting around in a small gaming lounge in the middle of a shopping center mashing buttons, zombie-fied and glued to TV screens (which, objectively, wasn’t too far from the truth). To me, the rush it garnered was so profound that it immediately inspired me to vomit a 4000+ word essay on it the day after.

Scenes from the first Batavia Brawl

The difference between playing a fighting game for fun and playing to compete is like driving a regular car and steering a racecar at maximum speed. Your hands are sweaty, you’re at the edge of your seat, and your mind is going at 300 kilometers per hour. Adrenaline is coursing through your blood. All your attention is focused on two figures jumping and running across the screen, and trying to knock out your opponent while evading their blows. After my first match of the tournament, head spinning and hands shaking off the rush of a decisive victory, I frantically messaged a friend who is my de facto Smash coach:

r u proud of me. my hands r shakng
I hate this game I love it

danny: you basically just experienced the mental form of fighting someone in real life

mel: now i know y ppl like to fight

But to me the best part of attending a local Smash tourney was being able to put a face to the people I had been chatting and playing with online over the past several days. Honestly, I was kind of worried because I had never been exposed to the Indonesian fighting game community. As a kid I had only played games with family and friends. I had gone to Smash meetups overseas, but never in Indonesia. What if they were unwelcoming, or what if things got awkward? My parents were so anxious about me potentially entering into a dodgy situation that my dad insisted on escorting me and my brother to the tournament. They still let me go though, and my dad waited out the entire 3 hour duration of the tournament, so huge props for being supportive. When I met the people I played with online and everyone else in person, I realized we were all the same: people who were crazy about Smash looking for other people crazy about Smash to play together with. They were all also surprised to find out I was a girl, but again that’s a story for another time. The red thread that connected every single gaming meetup or community I’ve been a part of is the desire to meet other players and simply enjoy the game together. Strangers turned into potential friends, and the universal language was our mutual appreciation and desire to prove our skills at Smash.

I ended up winning my first match and losing the subsequent two: not bad, but not great either. Then I went home, rewatched combo videos on YouTube, turned on my Switch and proceeded to grind in practice mode in preparation for the next tourney. I love the community aspect of fighting games. I also love to win. To do that, in gaming terms, I needed to “git gud.”

The fighting game genre is one of the hallmarks of the video game ecosystem. The premise is simple: you play as a character and try to knock out or beat up another character, played by someone else, before they do the same to you. A simple formula that has birthed hundreds of games with infinite variations of how you defeat your opponent, and a competitive scene that has captivated the attention of millions, launched professional teams, and produced the best strategic button mashers in the world. Unlike role playing games, which are mostly single-player, story-driven games that bond people through collectively experiencing a narrative together (similar to film), fighting games are an inherently social activity that bond people together through (ideally) friendly competition. Playing Smash and other fighting games has taught me how to exercise discipline, resilience, and critical decision making.

At the risk of sounding extremely corny and nerdy, though I’m sure I’m not the first to say this: playing a fighting game is as much a battle with your opponent as it is with your own mind. The core gameplay of any fighting game is a competition to see which player can react to and outwit the other faster and more accurately. If you watch a Smash battle, you’ll see players and the audience cringe and shout when characters get launched to their deaths offscreen, as if they could feel the impact of getting smashed themselves. The character you’re playing is a literal extension of yourself. This is why some people get so frustrated when they lose. To really get good at Smash, you need to be extremely aware about how you’re playing and the decisions you’re making at any given time, which means trying very hard to notice the bad habits you have when you play, and actively stop doing them.

If you’re interested in finding out more on this mechanic here’s an entire 10 minute video on it by professional Smash player ZeRo!

To illustrate just how many crucial decisions you have to make on your feet while you’re playing, let’s dissect a specific technical scenario in the game. Let’s say you get knocked offstage and are trying to recover back into the fighting arena so you don’t lose the match. You have a multitude of options in that moment, from varying the speed, angle, and position at which you get back onstage. If you keep picking the same option repeatedly, a smart opponent will read your moves and be able to prevent you from recovering each time. You have to constantly mix up your movements and figure out creative ways to outwit the other person. This sounds simple in theory, but when you’re actually playing at full speed and thinking about a hundred things at once, things get hectic, so players tend to default to bad habits, panic, or make poor decisions.

Improving your gameplay is like consistently performing cognitive behavioral therapy on yourself, only at a small, very specific scale and at rapid speed, and while someone is trying to hit you. Not unlike practicing mindfulness to eliminate distractions when you’re meditating. At high level Smash play, professional gamers can be thinking several steps ahead of each other at any given time. Not unlike professional chess matches, competitive Olympic sports, and major international sporting events. The next time someone tells you that video games can’t help you learn to focus and develop critical thinking skills, you should encourage them to play Smash.

Discipline and mental resilience are also crucial to get better at any fighting game. It’s impossible to get better without consistently investing time and effort to practice. One crucial but difficult part of any fighting game is learning combos: a series of accurately timed character movements done in succession that deal massive damage to the other player. A combo can range from anywhere between two to twenty button inputs, all executed in perfect and precise timing. Sometimes, even when you’re making the right moves and doing your combos flawlessly, you’re still outplayed by your opponent. Because Smash is such a situational game, there is no one surefire way to win every single time you play. How do you maintain the energy to keep playing and trying, even when you’ve exhausted all your options and still lose the battle? This is where your grit comes in. Whether it’s practicing again and again to execute combos, repeatedly fighting and losing against players who are better than you, and still not getting discouraged when you’re on a ten game losing streak, all these situations require you to stay motivated and be willing to keep polishing your skills on the grindstone. As with any sport, the more you practice and the more defeats you have, the more situations you are exposed to and the more knowledge you have about the game. Eventually, once you get past the fog of frustration, you will see yourself improve.

This framework of applying discipline, mental resilience, and critical decision making to bettering yourself is present throughout all fighting games, and can carry over to real life. If you keep at it, just like in Smash, one day you’ll find yourself winning matches you didn’t expect to win because you’ve practiced and studied so much that you just intuitively know what the right next move is. I try to remember this when I’m faced with challenges. In real life, training to execute perfect combos equates to working day by day to slowly overwrite bad habits and consciously choose to do the right thing. Putting it in fighting game terms helps me contextualize the process and reminds me that the end goal of getting good is the result of persevering through a journey of trial and error, learning from mistakes, and trying again and again. The way you get good at Smash is the same way you can also get good at real life. It is possible to learn good habits from playing video games. But it’s up to each individual to actively apply it in their lives outside of the virtual space.

What’s Next?

The issue of video game addiction has been a hot topic lately. There were times when my love of video games has done more harm than good. But undeniably, each time I have been deeply invested in a video game and its community, I’ve found friends that can share in that passion with me, and many of these friends I remain very close to, even when we don’t play the same games any more. I think we don’t shine the spotlight enough on how video games have also enabled many people to forge meaningful social connections. Playing video games together can be just as much a social activity as a tennis game, concert, poker night, or cinema outing. Local gaming communities are a rich platform to meet people, learn how to socialize, and just plain get better at the game.

People who invest in their local gaming communities don’t do it for money or recognition. There is no fame to be found in giving up your weekends to figure out how to best arrange and plug in electric sockets without short circuiting the venue and themselves, and lug equipment from one end of the city to another through hours of traffic. People who invest in their local gaming communities do it simply to get the chance to meet and play with other people. It is a labor of love.

A wise player in the Smash Indonesia community said, “You are only as good as your local scene.” As an individual player, you only improve if you have other people around you to play against. Like any other sport, the more skilled opponents there are around you, the faster and better you will get. Taking this analogy further, the more great players and fans there are, the higher the spectatorship of gaming events. The same force that is driving the explosion in the Mobile Legends players here is the same force that’s generating so many great players and professional eSports athletes, and the same force that’s driving Indonesian companies to invest in eSports. That means more spectator events, more tournaments, more games. This means more platforms for people who would usually never interact with each other to make connections. To be extremely optimistic, this means strengthening the foundations for the Indonesian gaming industry, and enhancing it from its current form as mass entertainment into an avenue that can help level up people’s livelihood, financially and socially.

I’m excited about and looking forward to the future of the gaming community in Jakarta. More and more conventional hangout spots are tapping into gamers- I’m seeing bars in the business district host Tekken and FIFA nights and board game cafes pop up all over the city. The growing Smash Indonesia Discord server has over 180 members now, and tournament organizers are actively preparing for a second round this Sunday. I hope this trend continues. The lifespan of any scene completely depends on the energy of the players within it. Just ask the people still actively playing Super Smash Bros Melee, the second iteration in the Smash series that has had an avid fanbase for 18 years. That’s older than some people who are playing Super Smash Bros Ultimate today.

You don’t have to be a kid to enjoy video games. If you’re curious about what this scene is all about, or you just really love a game and want to play with people who are as passionate as you are, go find your gaming scene. Look up your local Discord server. If you have kids, accompany them to play games with other players so you understand what motivates them. Go to the meetups. Start your own meetup if it doesn’t exist. If you build it, they will come. I don’t think people who grew up playing video games ever stop, they just take breaks in between life stages. And in Indonesia, that’s a lot of people.

Who knows, maybe I’ll see you at the next Smash tournament.